Over 60 per cent of the population of about 33 million are Muslim, predominantly Sunni; around 20 per cent are Buddhist, nearly 10 per cent Christian, 6 per cent Hindu. Other religions represented include Confucianism, Taoism, other traditional Chinese philosophies and religions, animists, Sikhs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Bahá’ís.
APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2020
Malaysia’s Constitution Article 3 (1) states “‘Islam is the Religion of the Federation’ but …religions other than Islam may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation”. In practice Shi’a and Ahmadiyya Muslims are considered ‘illegal’, a threat to public order.
Under its Article 11, freedom of religion is the first of special rights guaranteed under an inter-governmental agreement with the UK (and others), the Malaysia Agreement. However, this freedom to profess and practice one’s religion must not result in an act contrary to any general law relating to public order, health or morality.
Apostasy laws forbid conversion from Islam in all but one state. While proselytism among Malays is technically not illegal under federal law, it is illegal in the more powerful state law in 10 of 13 states.
The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) attempted in 2018 to introduce the Islamic penal code ‘hudood’ at the national level.
Religiously motivated ethno-centrism is frequently politicised, with increasing intolerance towards Chinese, Indian and indigenous tribespeople – most Christians belong to these groups.
Freedom of religion or belief issues mostly challenge the supremacy of the Constitution and whether sharia/Ulema council rulings (especially under state law) can take precedence over it such as:
A 2009 to 2014 case: ‘Allah’ (which entered Bahasa Malay from Arabic centuries ago) is also used by Christians for ‘their’ God. The government forbade ‘The Herald’ (Catholic) from using it in print. The publication’s right was upheld, but it lost it in 2013 after the government appealed. The Herald won again, but then lost after another government appeal in 2014. Christians feared they would have to find another completely new word, but the ruling seemed only to apply to print publications. (In recent years, the government has seized more than 20,000 Bibles).
Linked to this, Jill Ireland, a Christian, was in 2015 given back CDs (using ‘Allah’) after customs seized them in 2008. In 2017, she sued that the court denied her constitutional right to use ‘Allah’. Her lawyer argued no-one can claim “exclusive rights” to ‘Allah’. Global Muslim leaders and UN human rights bodies decried Malaysia’s decision to ‘copyright’ ‘Allah’ for Muslims’ exclusive use, but a years-delayed ruling that was due in January 2021 continues to be postponed, now due to COVID-19 restrictions. Jill Ireland won her case. Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled 10.3.21 that all non-Muslims have right to use ‘Allah’ for religious and educational purposes, as government ‘erred’ in issuing a ban on this in 1986.
The same week Ireland received her CDs, a bookshop manager was acquitted of stocking a banned book by a ‘reformist’ Muslim writer, even though the government ban came six days after he took delivery!
In Feb 2017, a Protestant pastor Raymond Koh was abducted. In April 2019, the Human Rights Commission inquiry concluded that the Special Branch was behind his disappearance, as too of Amri Che Mat, founder of an NGO accused of spreading Shi’a Islam, similarly abducted in November 2016. There is evidence Special Branch had Che Mat under surveillance for 3 days before he disappeared.
An Indonesian, Ruth Sitepu and her husband Joshua Hilmy, a Muslim convert to Christianity, also disappeared 6 days after Che Mat was abducted: nothing has been heard of either since.
In the UK Parliament, 2020
ORAL QUESTION Jim Shannon 5 March;
WRITTEN QUESTION Lord Alderdice 3 March;
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